How does the moral/philosophical approach work in analyzing a story? Who are some notable critics that use this approach?

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dasylirion | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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When you use a specific style of criticism to approach a piece of literature, you are looking for ways the story relates to your style. In other words, when you use Approach X, you read the story asking, "What does this story say about X?"

For example, a feminist critic would look for scenes, characters, passages, rhetorical devices, etc. that indicate the story's message about the place women have in society. A Marxist critic would look for elements of class conflict and economic inequality.

So, by analogy, you can guess what a moral/philosophical critic is looking for. Take this quote from the critic Matthew Arnold (emphasis his): "What [readers] want is something to animate and ennoble them—not merely to add zest to their melancholy or grace to their dreams." That word "ennoble" is essential. Arnold thought literature should make you want to be a better person—a more moral one. Two of his criteria when assessing a work were "high seriousness" and "high truth." He wanted stories that searched for the meaning of life. He wouldn't like romance novels or summer action movies; he'd see them as capricious and pointless, since they are more about having fun than thinking deep thoughts.

This form of moralism goes all the way back to classical antiquity—Plato, Aristotle, Horace, the whole gang. Plato, for example, had strong feelings about the purpose of literature. He thought it had the power to affect its readers' feelings and behaviors, so the only good kind was the kind that showed characters doing good and noble things. On one hand, it's cool that he thought stories were so powerful. On the other, well, can you imagine how boring reading would be in his world?

Check out this passage from Plato's Republic, where he has Socrates give his opinion of a line from Homer's Odyssey about a soldier insulting his superior: "[It] may very possibly afford some amusement, but [it does] not conduce to temperance. And therefore [it is] likely to do harm to our young men." Do you do everything that you read about? Probably not. But Plato worried you might, and judged stories on that basis.

But this type of criticism is called moral/philosophical. Where's the philosophical part?

Not everyone has the same idea of what it means to be "moral." Plato and T. S. Eliot, for example, both looked for morality in literature, but they lived about 2,300 years apart, in different countries, and with different religions. Do you think they had exactly the same concept of right and wrong?

In contrast, D. H. Lawrence wanted to see "man alive" in literature. His worldview was influenced heavily by his study of paganism. Here's what he said he wanted out of life: “For the living of my full flame—I want that liberty, I want that woman, I want that pound of peaches, I want to go to sleep, I want to go to the pub and have a good time, I want to look a beastly swell today, I want to kiss that girl, I want to insult that man.” He didn't say that about any one work, but that's the mentality he brought to literary criticism.

Can't you imagine Plato going nuts reading that? But Lawrence was as sure as Plato that his philosophy about how to live a good life was valid. And when you step back and think about it, every system of morality is based on a philosophy about life. So we call the approach "moral/philosophical" to encompass all the different worldviews critics apply as they assess literature— ones we traditionally think of as "moral," and ones that we might find a little more exotic.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that there might be much in the way of analysis and responses on this particular topic.  In my mind, the moral/ philosophical approach to analyzing a story helps to develop different perceptions of it.  The secondary analysis of a work can take many forms when one embraces different approaches to reading it.  For example, an approach steeped in the Marxist approach will reveal certain aspects of a work that might not have been originally appreciated.  The approach of formalism in analyzing a work is of critical importance to those who believe in the precepts of this particular set of values.  Different moral or philosophical approaches help to reveal more of the story present and help to reveal more aspects of the work that might have laid dormant.

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